Tropical ramblings on a Friday before a long weekend…
I woke up early this morn, half-dreaming of a place with palm trees and teeming reefs, half-real, half-fading in my morning haze.
I walked by the water a little later, the sea a bit less ultramarine here, contemplating the green-ness of late May, seeming late this year; I listened to the mockingbirds and blue jays and the distant knocking of woodpeckers. I made tea from ingredients I’ve collected from faraway spice markets.
I’m working from home today, listening to Zulu music between meetings while my dog’s snoring keeps time with the beat.
It’s a weird and wonderful world out there, all these places whispering their invitations to go exploring. Today, I’m collecting that feeling and brewing it, like a magic tea of sorts, to glean inspiration and motivation.
This morning, we load up the bikes with dive gear and the day’s necessities and point ourselves towards the dive shop. The sky shines a vivid, almost musical blue, and the sea competes with an azure rainbow; variegated cyan delineating reef from sand.
We had seen the rocky mound of an island from land, its sole palm reaching for the sky as if trying to escape Poseidon’s wrath. Ave Maria, it’s called; there’s no use attempting to mix metaphors here. This is our first dive site.
The Seychelles’ reef system has suffered much the same fate as others in this ocean: a bleaching event a couple of years ago and a subsequent coral die-off, which leaves me sad but not surprised that the vibrancy isn’t as I’d hoped. It seems to be trying to come back, though, and the fish are here to stay. We see a few green sea turtles, and some decent-sized schools of fish; moray eels, humphead wrasse, unicornfish, triggerfish, butterflyfish and puffers; octopi, cowfish, un petit requin (black tip), moorish idols, and that silly-looking yellow and black one with stripes and spots whose name I’ve forgotten…we’re even graced with the appearance of the elusive pipefish. Clownfish are few, alas, as there are few anemones in which they live. But we tally 5 adventure points for the dives, including C’s earned by fending off a rogue sea urchin. This mermaid’s fins are sated for now.
Back on land…
As if the day’s humidity weren’t enough to sap one’s strength, we decide to ride our (15ish kilo) bikes up the island’s highest hill to take in the view at Nid d’Aigle. The road winds its way up, the hills at a 45° angle to the rest of the world; the humidity rivalling the consistency of, say, lobster bisque. Biking gives way to pushing said (leaden) bikes, which eventually leads to surrendering to the elements (we are, by this point, more liquid than solid humans; sweat becoming just another layer on top of sun cream), depositing them at the side of the road to climb the rest of the way à pied. This is one of the steepest roads I think I’ve ever been on, but the reward here is the view (bonus: also the restaurant, Belle Vue, from which we’re vue-ing makes the best fruit juice on the island). We make reservations to return the following night for dinner and sunset (transport inclus), then continue upwards on the gnarly trail behind the place to the mountain’s peak (hint: the view from the restaurant 350 metres below was better).
Adventure points earned: 1 for biking up the absurd hill on leaden bikes; 2 for surviving without suffering heat stroke; 1 for hiking into the jungle, to the top of la montagne, and not falling to the same fate as the storied German*.
One final adventure point is earned for wildlife encounters on the way down: a free-range tortoise greets us, out for its morning stroll (at a tortoise’s pace…arriving to us in the height of the afternoon), enjoying a snack of freshly-fallen mangoes. C befriends the beast and they share a moment.
The next day’s dives are similar to the first, with a parallel state of corals and ditto sea critters. They are nice dives with fun swim-thrus and more interesting granite structures than the previous day, sea flora painting the rock its underwater patina. This being a nice but unimpressive dive overall, I was not prepared for what we saw next. As we exited a swim-thru and rounded a corner, a massive, majestic, magnificent marbled ray defied not only the m-adjectives, but my expletives as well, by making itself known. It was nestled between two rocks, flanked by several smaller stingrays, seeking or providing protection, I am not clear. We stayed close, watching their behaviour, the smaller rays coming and going, fawning over the larger in almost a caress; nature never ceasing to amaze. It is at these times I feel fortunate to be a diver, experiencing the undersea world in childlike awe and wonder, as if given special access to explore another planet.
Back on dry land, we bike to the north and then to the east (La Digue map), to where the road ends at Anse Fourmis; jagged rocks teasing the way to a jungle path we are determined to explore when we’ve got more hours (not tonight, tho, we’ve got a date with a sunset). The surf is wilder here, the rocks sharper: testament to a more exposed coastline on this side of the island. The views no less spectacular, and we’re awed anew.
Adventure points earned: 10 for the diving (attributed mostly to the ray and its entourage) plus one for the evening: a lorry ride up and down the giant hill, a sunset dinner and an overall lovely day. I fall asleep with a smile on my face and can’t recall the last time I road a bike with a basket in a bikini.
End of the road at Anse Fourmis
The Seychelles fruit bat
Sunset from Belle Vue
More diving the next day and a half, adding a handful more adventure points to the tally. The sites are good, but Pemba is still at the top of our list of favourites. We see dolphins from both the room overlooking the ocean, and the boat during the surface interval off Grand Soeur island. There are small black-tip shark sightings, barracuda, moray eels (one more massive than most!), swarms of Indian ocean fish… A collection of fun dives with more granite rock formations to swim thru and sea turtles to swim beside. There’s also a lovely little yellow frogfish, adding to the list of sea critters I’d not seen before this trip.
The diving has been fun thus far, but the end of the road calls… back on La Digue, we mount bikes and head for Anse Fourmis again, and our quest to reach Anse Cocos. It’s like a Monty Python meets Indiana Jones meets Bear Grylls: we’re not 200 metres into the jagged, rocky, jungly trail as the clouds decide to open and release monsoon-like rains. We can continue on and risk life and limb on the rocks and jungle brush, or play it safe and return the way we came. Opting for the latter, the bike ride home is like a 7-year-old’s dream: fat, warm raindrops form giant puddles through which we splash, laughing. We’re soaked to the core when we come across one of the local roadblocks: a massive tortoise, looking spic and span in the downpour. They’ve not yet become a novelty, so we stop to share our oranges with this friendly beast. It is not possible to be more drenched than we already are.
Adventure points earned this day: 1 for the dive, another for a remora that took a fancy to C and remained our dive buddy for the entire dive; add one for bushwhacking and jungle hiking in the rain.
It is only in hindsight that we declare, “do not eat the chef’s special.”
We return to Anse Banane by bike in the inky darkness, a headlamp and a torch lighting our way through the still-damp night. We’ve come to a highly-recommended restaurant, with its charming décor and seating facing the ocean, the storm-fueled waves crashing fervently across the way. The meal, a lovely smorgasborg of salads and fish of all styles: curry, fritters, grilled (chef’s special), with a home-made banana cake for dessert.
The day, the dives, the hike and the silly soggy bike ride: excellent. The night: not so much. We both wake in the wee hours, reeling from what can only be food poisoning. Details spared, this dashes our last diving day (my 1.5km bike ride to the dive shop to let them know we’re half-dead nearly does me in for good) and has us horizontal, indoors, for the day. With one foray to the beach in a failed attempt at a swim, we retreat to the relative safety of the hotel to recuperate and commiserate. This is not how we wanted to spend our second to last day here…I know C is cursing the elephant. Survivor points: 5.
*About the German: local lore tells of a German tourist who hiked up to Nid d’Aigle with his fellow travellers, spotted a house he wanted to see again, and went back up the mountain on his own. He was never heard from again; search teams and dogs couldn’t even find him. We heard this over lunch from the owner of a café on our way up to Nid d’Aigle…whether the story has morphed into island legend, we’re not clear.
I’m getting ready to go on a semi-big trip, grateful for these luxuries, but it all seems a bit absurd: I’m about to get on a plane to take me to a dot of an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where I’ll meet my Calvin, the international man of mystery to some; a tall, sort-of dark, handsome polyglot… The dot of an island, apparently a haven for International partying and business dealings (I learnt only after booking)… We’re going to dive, to see nature, to soak in the azure sea. From the outside, one could write a totally different narrative; and so my colleagues think I’m much more interesting than I really am. And, possibly, that I’m a spy.
The adventure starts, as they do, at an airport: I’ve got leaving down to a T, but need to work on my packing skills. My own fault, for I’m travelling with equipment: cameras and dive gear and a sack full of adapters and wires for the electronic things. And snacks.
Taxi, bag drop, security, all go smoothly. Waiting, then boarding, then sitting practically upright for too long, as this metal bird wings me and 200 or so others over the Atlantic and across Europe. Captive for 9 hours, thankful to have been able to sleep on this flight. It’s been a long few weeks back in the real world.
The large international airport is something of a time warp; a black hole, where time and culture and language and fashion meld into a weird melange that’s like a 26-ring circus on amphetamines, but with more neon lighting and these uniformed guys weaving through the throngs on segues.
I’ve landed in Istanbul with a long layover in which to entertain myself. Instead of risking mishap to go exploring in town tonight – I’m only half-way to my final destination as is – I opt to go the lounge route: $30 or so gets you a quiet-ish place to wait out your airport time when you don’t have enough clout or smooth talk to make it into the Turkish Airlines lounge (tried, failed). It covers WiFi, food, drinks, the lot… I’d spend more than this at a crowded restaurant in the airport and wouldn’t be able to stay for 6 hours unbothered!
And so, where one might find this newly-jetlagged wanderer this night is the Milennium Lounge in Istanbul’s airport, while, interestingly enough, cultures and ideologies and politics don’t seem to clash at all here since everyone has better things on which to spend their energies.
[stay tuned for more adventures as Year of Africa continues if and when I have WiFi again]
Sometimes when the rain is pouring down outside and you’re on your last-minute packing frenzy for the next adventure, you pull up video from the last epic dive holiday and hope the Universe is kind and the water is clear and the land and sea critters cooperate and the forces of whatever conspire to allow the spaceship to fling you safely towards the little speck of an island in the middle of some faraway ocean…
Yeah, this is real. I took the footage myself. There are even some clips I should include but didn’t get around to editing (and, yes, at the end…the current was that strong!).
When we last left our intrepid traveller, she had been deposited at the busy end of the Fna, desperately in need of the loo (and a shower), an hour late and quite eager to meet her co-adventurer back at the riad…
Truth be told, I navigate better by gut than by map, so after a quick pit stop at the nearest café (NB: it is a fact that in any ladies’ room on the planet, it will always be occupied by someone having a vivid argument on her mobile, and the intensity of the conversation will be in direct proportion to how badly you need to pee), I trust my instincts (and cheat with Google Maps only once) to guide me back to the riad. Briefly revelling in my triumph, I arrive with barely half an hour to spare before C appears. Our reunions are always nice, as was the tagine dinner and Fna-gazing from the rooftop. It’s a different world up there; the din of the music and the drums and the crowds are near-silent within the walls of the riad.
The mission for the weekend is to explore the souks and The Medina. I hadn’t ventured too far my first afternoon, and by the next morning I was excited to see the sights. With company, I figured, it wouldn’t be as daunting. I must report that the bazaars I’ve been to in India and in Istanbul pale in comparison to the ferocity with which the souks here in Marrakech do their souking. Hundreds, non, milliers, of stalls fan out from the Jemaa el Fna square in semi-organised lanes, lined floor to ceiling with wares, some sections carry general themes: cuir, olives, cuivre, vêtements, textiles, lampes, épices… The rest of the stalls, piled high with pottery and scarves and shoes and crafts and rugs and…I’m confident that one could find literally anything here.
By this point we’ve spent some time haggling for trinkets, and I’m beginning to get my sea legs back – in French! We’ve spent an hour or more in a gorgeous lamp shop, genially negotiating, finding C the one thing (actually, three) he’s wanted to get here: some filigreed copper lamps, and I’ve even chosen one for myself as well. We’re feeling accomplished but hungry, maybe a little haggle-weary, and on our way back through the chaos we run into the super-nice Puerto Rican couple from my jaunt in the desert. We’ve decided to have lunch together in a café overlooking the square, so we’re en route when we’re accosted by a very insistent woman, babbling in nursery rhymes, keen on hennaing me. She’s not as keen on C’s brush off and looks him squarely in the eye as she invokes the ancient and potent Berber curse. Every hair in C’s scrappy beard stands on end as she says, finger pointed in warning: Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he? It’s clearly lunchtime.
Jemaa el Fna at lunchtime on a Friday, just before the afternoon Adhan
The Adhan, or call to prayer, sounds haunting from above – 3 minarets broadcast the muzzeins’ calls in unison, lunchtime din mixes with the prayers.
After depositing our souk winnings and a siesta, we embark on the next check-box for the day: completion of C’s RunStreak. You see, he’s an ultramarathoner in recovery from a frustrating injury so he’s challenged himself to a 20 minute (and >1.6 km) run each day for the month. I’m an incidental beneficiary (??) of the challenge. And so we set out this afternoon, not entirely sure how it will play out – even with all the European influnce here it is still a very conservative Muslim country. I’ve covered myself head to toe; but still, in running tights and a long-sleeved/hooded sweatshirt, I feel a bit exposed in this place where the sight of a woman’s legs sans frock is near blasphemy. We run through the Fna square and across to Koutubia mosque, with its orange trees ripe for picking. It goes okay, I haven’t gotten berated or stoned, so I’m feeling a little better about the next day’s plan for an even longer run in these streets.
Street food for dinner in the largest open-air cafeteria on the planet
If rigid ideology is what divides us, food is what unites. Jemaa el Fna is a mélange of sound, smoke and smell; an open-air cafeteria for all the senses. There are the food hawkers of course, but also the drumming and other instruments (the gimbri or the oud, Moroccan versions of the lute), the insistent clapping of the two-sided Moroccan maracas; there’s a resonance of flutes in the air…not to mention the snake charmers and storytellers and singers, all swirling their words, in Arabic and Tamazight and French, with the smoke from the cooking fires. The smell is something I’ll always remember as warm and spicy and rustic and elemental.
In the evening, the stalls go up: dozens of pop up restaurants selling variations on a theme, organised into rows of similar foodstuffs. One row is snails, one row soups, one row meats, one row kebabs, one row desserts. We choose a stall on faith – they’re numbered, and representatives from each stall go out into the crowd to entice hungry-looking wide-eyed lingerers to their tables. It’s an amazing visual, a well-choreographed nightly ritual.
Our first experiment is snails. We’re served a small bowl of the critters from a giant steaming pot, and use toothpicks to pluck them out. They’re a thinner, more peppery version of escargot, sans the butter and garlic. So they’re nothing like escargot at all really, but I’m glad to have tried them.
Bread is a staple at every meal. And mint tea. I order olives and Moroccan salad (something like ceviche without the fish); C orders an entire lamb’s head (because, of course you do) and has way more food than he can possibly eat, so we share an entire plate of meat, plus some of the bread, with the sweet, chatty family sitting next to us; they’re clearly grateful that we’ve shared our dinner.
Dessert is a thick tea; a ginger, anise and cinnamony mix of spices (there does not seem to be any actual tea in the tea), served from massive copper urns, accompanied by dense, crumbly cake that is something of a cross between halvah and gingerbread. I think I could stand here at this stall for an hour, sipping this luxurious tea and watching the Fna go by. Grand total for dinner: 150 dirhams; approx. 15€.
We’re quite good at getting lost together, C and I, but usually it’s in a forest or on a mountain, not on the narrow alleyways of an ancient city. We’d stumbled around The Medina that morning, deeper into the souk streets, finding the old slave market that now houses olives and textiles; exploring old caravanserais (fondouqs), old lodging houses for traders on the caravan routes – the bottom floors wide open to accommodate camels, the rooms on the upper floors for travellers. Only 140 of these fondouqs remain in The Medina; they’re gorgeous old buildings now home to artisan workshops.
We wandered until we found ourselves near the tannery, where, before we knew it, we were being handed Berber gas masks (sprigs of mint) against the smell, and guided into the lieu. There are two tanneries, we’re told: the Arabic one, where they use machines and chemicals to cure the hides (typically cow), and the Berber one, where they use natural ingredients (including “pigeon poo”) to prepare the leather (the more durable camel, and also goat). It’s more fascinating than stinky, and for that fact alone I’m grateful it’s not 10° warmer. And I’m not surprised as we’re then guided into a shop to haggle for more goods (I score a pair of handmade leather shoes) before meandering back out into the maze.
It’s here that we become frustratingly lost and ask directions – we’re aware of the scams so we ask to be pointed the way back. This was the diciest moment of the trip: the guy who initially pointed out the directions began to lead; the streets grew quieter and we were lead into an empty courtyard where he pointed to a minaret (not the one we were looking for, I realised) and demanded money to lead us to it. We said no (again) and began to walk back the way we came. Just then, 3 or 4 of his friends appear from out of nowhere. There are no other people around and we are surrounded by these guys in a really narrow alley, demanding to be paid for their, erm, services. I don’t think I had time to be afraid because when I saw how angry C was, the don’t fuck with me look in his eyes said all the guys needed to know. They backed off just moments before it could have come to ugly blows.
Crisis averted, Google maps gets us to more familiar territory, and we let the adrenaline die down over a fantastic rooftop lunch. It’s times like this I think of that Charles Schulz quote, “In life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with.” We toast, with mint tea, to this very moment in time.
The afternoon is more wandering, more haggling (argan oil and scarves), more running – this time through the magnificent Cyberparc Arsat Moulay Abdessalam, its manicured gardens and meandering paths a striking contrast to the din of the souks. And finally, after the long day, dinner redux at Jemaa el Fna.
Because food is half the adventure of travel, we first try soup from one place (the ubiquitous harira, which I’ll try to replicate when I get home), then seek out some other vittles for the main course. “Number 55 is stinky food,” we’re told by a guy representing a virtually empty stall. We choose number 55, of course, as it is packed with many more locals than tourists – always a good sign.
The lamb tangia is cooked in earthen pots over an open fire. We’re seated at a long table with sheets of paper for mats, Berber bread plunked down in the middle, Berber whiskey (mint tea) served alongside the meal. Next to us sits a family of 3, excitedly awaiting their dinner. It is served with fanfare, and we watch in equal anticipation as the waiter unfurls the dish. The meal, barely enough for two, is placed in front of the family. But before they begin, we are offered the first taste with a warm gesture.
We’re enjoying the food (C’s got the tangia; mine is a really good roast veggie plate), revelling in the gregariousness and absurd hospitality of the cooks/waiters, welcoming the kindness of strangers. We share bread, we share our meals, we eat in the din of the night amongst thousands of strangers. This is nice, I think…What is it that we’re doing wrong in the West, when welcoming foreigners is discouraged, as if we’d lose something of ourselves if we were to gain new perspective or new friends. It pains me that if the tables were on this soil, this scene wouldn’t likely have played out.
We wake the next morning and it’s already time to go. A quick riad brekkie and C is off to the races, almost literally, as the Marrakech Marathon has snarled traffic and, ironically, he has to walk part-way to the airport. I get a few hours more, the first part of which I spend drinking mint tea in a sunny café in the quiet of the morning Fna, watching the day (and the vendors) unpack. I had wanted to see the photography museum, but after our ordeal in that general vicinity yesterday I decide I’d better not get lost with just hours before my flight. Instead, I set a goal of getting the most for the last dirhams in my pocket and venture back into the souks. And I feel pretty good, parting with my last 100 dirham bill and some coins in exchange for some hand-painted bowls. I feel an even more an accomplished haggler when the shopkeeper, laughing, calls me a Berber. For that I take back a one-dirham coin (roughly 10 cents) from the pile I’d placed in his hand and say, jokingly, pour un souvenir, and leave the shop with both of us still laughing.
The ride to the airport was uneventful, and it was on the walk to the car that I realised we were lost the day before mere blocks from the riad. Oh, the labyrinthine rues of Marrakech…The sounds and the smells and the sights of a whirlwind week in Morocco fill my head as I check in and board my flight.
One last stop: Germany. A quick stopover in Munich on a lovely day gives me just enough time to see the Marienplatz glockenspiel do its thing from the 91-metre high Alter Peter. Then it’s Westward-ho into Boston’s late-January chill, where the fernweh takes hold and gets the wheels spinning for the next adventure.